By Laura Zilverberg
Writer, editor, and volunteer with MN350's Communications Team

On a crisp October day 10 years ago, unbeknownst to them, a group of activists was laying the groundwork for a statewide movement of climate justice that would become MN350. MN350 now reaches more than 20,000 Minnesotans, with campaigns to change the way we care for our shared home through 100% renewable energy, clean transportation, and truly sustainable regenerative agriculture. But 10 years ago the issue was coal, and the volunteer team didn’t yet know what they would accomplish.

Julia Nerbonne, who would become the first director of MN350, had recently heard Co-Founder Bill McKibben speak at Augsburg College. She knew the dangers of climate change and had watched the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen lead to nothing but half-hearted assertions and empty promises. Like many of us trying to find our way in the climate movement, she felt the disappointment deeply and lived with depression for the rest of the winter. By the time spring came around, she knew that paralysis would serve nobody, and least of all her three- and seven-year-old children.

She began preparations for MN350’s first unofficial event. “It had to be us. It wasn’t going to be the people in Copenhagen,” she said.

Performance art in the early days of MN350; photo by Julia Nerbonne

In the wake of that dark post-Copenhagen winter, Julia invited fellow climate activists (Paul Thompson, Chuck Prentice, and others) to her front porch to plan an event in celebration of’s 10/10/10 day of action. Together with students and fellow community members, they pulled it off. People from across Minnesota came together, including approximately 500 people participating in a bike ride across the Stone Arch Bridge culminating at Mill Ruins Park. The event showcased dozens of important initiatives happening on the ground in the Twin Cities and spotlighted the work of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign by protesting the University of Minnesota coal burner.

In a number of months, the University of Minnesota announced it would shut down its coal plant. Julia and her fellow activists had gotten a taste of the power of protest. “It really gave people a sense that when we mobilize, it works,” she continued. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we could feel the momentum, and we started forming committees.”

The following year, the group held another event at the State Capitol with more than 1,200 participants. At the time, Julia felt discouraged because after the success of 2010, they wanted to make a bigger impact, but it also taught the team the importance of putting in place a long-term strategy. The team began to meet monthly, opened a bank account, applied for 501(c) status, and eventually hired their first paid staff, Kate Jacobson, setting in motion many of the same impact committees that still operate today.

Reflecting on the next few years, Julia laughs at how their then-radical actions are now commonplace for climate justice movements. For example, she remembers how a Bill McKibben Do the Math event sold out with 1,200 people in 2012, and how in February 2013, the team took over several train cars to transport around 100 Minnesotans to Washington D.C., dubbed the Earth Train, for the Forward on Climate event. At the time, it was the largest climate rally in history. Forward on Climate also featured a peaceful protest of the Keystone XL pipeline in which activists were arrested. According to Julia, these events cemented the climate movement in Minnesota.

When she looks back on the early years and where our movement has gone, she acknowledges that everything has changed.

“The world has opened up, and people now know that we can’t address climate change without addressing racial justice. We knew this from the beginning, but there was always pressure to pursue quick solutions on carbon reduction. Our philosophy was, ‘We have to do both.’”

We conclude our conversation with a discussion of hope, and while Julia is feeling the disappointment of Line 3, she tells a story about the power of what people can do when they work together.

Julia and her daughter Clara painted a banner at Clara’s preschool

“At one point we heard that Sen. Klobuchar wasn’t going to support a bill that could stop Keystone XL. We mobilized at least 100 people to gather at her Minnesota offices during the winter. It was snowing and an amazing activist, Betty Tisel, wrote a song to the tune of “Let It Snow.” We stood in the freezing cold in the senator’s parking lot and raised our voices to sing, ‘just say no, just say no, just say no.’ Several years later, we were meeting with Sen. Klobuchar’s staff and when we said we came from MN350, the staff member started singing our song. We had clearly made an impression.”

To the volunteers and activists for MN350, Julia reminds us that a clear story and collective action can lead to transformational change. You never know who you’ll touch.

And while I didn’t know Julia before our conversation, my own climate activism comes from the events Julia organized and joined. I watched activists being arrested outside of the White House but hadn’t yet found my voice. I watched demonstrations and protests for years before I joined one. For all of us doing this work, may we create more activists through our actions.

Julia served as the founding director of MN350 and is currently the executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light. She is also a professor at the University of Minnesota, where she teaches courses on sustainability and social change. Prior to her time in the climate movement, she was the environmental sustainability program director at HECUA.

Laura Zilverberg is a public relations professional, volunteer with MN350, and mother of two. She used to be an avid runner and plans to be again once her kids sleep through the night. She enjoys reading and channeling her dread about climate change into baked goods, gardening, and blog posts.